FILE- Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has announced the county’s new homeless resource center will be built at 3380 S. 1000 West in South Salt Lake. The mayor made the announcement on Friday, March 31, 2017.
SOUTH SALT LAKE — Up against a state deadline, South Salt Lake officials on Thursday approved a conditional use permit for the 300-bed men’s homeless resource center that has been delayed for months among technical planning issues.
In theory, the approval clears the way for groundbreaking — which the shelter’s owner, Shelter the Homeless, had hoped would happen no later than May. But the nonprofit’s executive director, Preston Cochrane, said until the permit is "in-hand," the project won’t be shovel ready.
But as long as Shelter the Homeless gets that permit soon, Cochrane said he’s hopeful groundbreaking can take place within the next two weeks — soon enough that state officials might not have to step in and take over the facility.
"I’m optimistic," he said. "We appreciate the South Salt Lake Planning Commission taking the necessary steps forward and doing this as quickly as they can."
South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood commended "the colossal effort and diligence" of the planning commission, city staff said in a news release issued after Thursday’s vote, noting that the mayor expects the shelter to break ground in "less than two weeks."
South Salt Lake leaders a year ago were infuriated when Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams selected the South Salt Lake site for the shelter, but, having no means to fight the facility, they resorted working to address concerns through the permitting process. But amid delays that put officials up against a state-mandated deadline, Wood earlier this month pushed for a series of four special meetings to streamline the process so the facility remains in city planner’s hands and does not default to the state.
However, the pathway forward for the facility isn’t completely clear because of the many "unknowns" that remain for the shelter, Cochrane noted.
That’s because, in an effort to expedite a building permit, the South Salt Lake Planning Commission split the conditional use permit’s approval into two phases, with the first phase approved Thursday only having to do with the site and building requirements.
Phase two for the permit, having to do with how the facility operates, still needs approval — though technically the phase 1 approval clears the way for construction.
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"It’s difficult for us as an organization," Cochrane told the commission."You know, (spending) $15 million on this and digging dirt without having any sort of confirmation that all of these conditions can be met. … It’s definitely a risk for us. It would be like building a restaurant and not ever knowing if you can serve food out of that restaurant."
But planning commissioners had a long list of operational concerns that still need to be worked through, including how the facility will operate and what safeguards will be put in place as to prevent the shelter from having the same issues highlighted in a state legislative audit released earlier this month, including lax security and widespread drug use inside the Road Home’s downtown shelter.
"There’s a lot of things up in the air and phase 2 is obviously very big and complicated, but we’re working on it," Commissioner David Veenstra said. "We need to do everything we can to make sure we can make it (successful)."
Throughout June, the planning commission is expected to complete a "detailed dive into the operator failures at the Road Home facility" identified in the audit, and "ultimately, the planning commission will impose reasonable conditions of operation to prevent potential for significant adverse community impacts of an unregulated or poorly managed shelter on 1000 West," Wood’s office said in Thursday’s release.
Shelter the Homeless and state officials had hoped to break ground on the shelter at 3380 S. 1000 West by the first week of June. Cochrane said groundbreaking may be able to wait until the second week of June — but after that, state officials might still take matters into their own hands in order to prevent any further delays.
The same state law that allocated $20 million in state funding for construction of the South Salt Lake shelter and two others in Salt Lake City also mandates the Road Home’s downtown homeless shelter shuttered by June 30, 2019 — so officials have said all three shelters must be up and running by then, and delay is not an option.
Under a reverter clause in the shelter site’s purchase agreement, ownership of the site could revert from Shelter the Homeless to the state if it doesn’t break ground before June 30 — meaning the facility would not be required to go through the city’s planning process.
However, state officials may choose to act before the June 30 deadline. "That’s still a possibility," Cochrane said, but he added he’d prefer Shelter the Homeless to continue working with South Salt Lake’s Planning Commission.
Throughout the shelter’s delays, state officials have been moving on a "parallel track" to step in if it appears South Salt Lake leaders don’t approve the needed permits in time for groundbreaking, Jonathan Hardy, director of Housing and Community Development in the state’s Department of Workforce Services, has said.
If construction doesn’t start within the next two weeks, Shelter the Homeless could "hypothetically" choose to donate the site to the state and lease the property back to get the project started sooner rather than later, Cochrane said.
Meanwhile, homeowners on 1000 West are still attempting to fight the South Salt Lake shelter site. Cindy Jones, speaking on behalf of her neighbors, told commissioners approval of the conditional use permit will have "severe negative impacts" to her neighborhood.
"There is no guarantee the promises made today … will be kept over time," Jones said. "We feel like this matter has been hurriedly pushed through without the necessary due diligence and it’s ultimately going to impact our rights."
In the meantime, Jones said negotiations with Salt Lake County continue, but she and her neighbors have yet to receive any offers from the county to buy out their land.